AN INTERVIEW WITH NEWTON HARRISON
In this interview, one of the pioneers and leaders of the eco-art movement, Newton Harrison, tells about the history of the emergence of this trend in contemporary art and its tasks at the present stage of its development, about how art can influence public opinion and the position of authorities and business regarding environmental issues. He considers the need for a union of art and science, broad interdisciplinary cooperation in the interests of continuous development, the role of poetic expression and his most recent works as a “counterforce” to the ecological crisis.
Keywords: ecological art, eco-art movement, the Life Web
Newton Harrrison, Research Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure, the University of California at Santa Cruz, Director of Harrisons Studio, and Professor Emeritus, the University of California at San Diego (CA, USA). He was among the pioneers of the eco-art movement, a member of the collaborative team of Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison (who died in 2018) that worked for over forty years with biologists, ecologists, architects, urban planners and other artists to initiate collaborative dialogues to uncover ideas and solutions which support biodiversity and community development.
The Harrisons’ concept of art embraces a breathtaking range of disciplines. They are historians, diplomats, ecologists, investigators, emissaries and art activists. Their work involves proposing solutions and involves not only public discussion, but also community involvement and extensive mapping and documentation of these proposals in an art context. Past projects have focused on watershed restoration, urban renewal, agriculture and forestry issues and urban ecologies. The Harrisons’ visionary projects have, on occasion, led to changes in governmental policy and have expanded dialogue around previously unexplored issues leading to practical implementations variously in the United States and Europe. There is a large body of literature on their work. They have exhibited extensively in the United States and Europe, and been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the European Union, the German, Dutch, French and English Governments.
Alexander Kopytin (AK): You and Helen were pioneers of environmental art and were involved in your influential joint career together that lasted nearly half a century. You made a serious impact on the contemporary policy and practice of environmental art. You were among the first artists in the 1960s to addressed the issues of environmental protection, including the issues of climate change, the extinction of biological species, pollution, renewable natural resources, and you emphasized that they can no longer be perceived as secondary and should instead become central in everyday politics: in the economy, in everyday life, in education, etc. The field of environmental art has developed alongside an increasing awareness of ecological issues and the rise of the environmental movement since the 1960s. Once an area of interest for a relatively small group of people, art that addresses environmental issues has in the last years become part of the powerful artistic mainstream, its forms and methods. How has the Harrisons’ art evolved since 60s? How would you characterize the current situation in the environmental artistic milieu and your recent projects aimed at building a new and more continuous future?
Figure 1 A Counterforce on the Horizon | Helen Mayer & Newton Harrison | TEDxSantaCruz, April, 2015.
Newton Harrison (NH): First to clarify timing, in Helen’s and my first work together, where we didn’t actually know we were collaborating, she was an intelligent wife and academic helping a husband academic. The work was a world map of endangered and extinct species done for an exhibition entitled Fur and Feathers by the Contemporary Crafts Museum. It took 4 months of research and the assistance of 2 graduate students. We were chosen to supply content and overview, since we were known as looking at ecosystems from which all the fur and feathers emerged.
We began thinking and doing this work in 1969 together and never changed and continued. My foundational work separate from Helen was the question, how does a cell grow, since I either began with the largest or the smallest in seeking understanding. My very first work was The Birth and Death of a Lily Cell and was first exhibited in Howard Weise Gallery in, I believe, 1968. Our Fur and Feathers piece was done in 1969. Helen and I agreed to make a joint career combining our diverse talents to do no work that did not benefit the ecosystem that year. Our first few years work together was to find out exactly what ecosystems were. Now, 50 years later, looking at environmental art, most of the work looks to me as if many artists are taking on local ecological problems and raising the issues at community levels. It is my opinion that our field needs to be trained in how to read the Life Web itself. After all, it continually speaks to us. And in reading this Life Web, we need to become obedient to its wishes. Its principle wish, from my perspective or my understanding, is that we the human race would do best to seek ways to join the Web, stop consuming it, but rather become niches in the Life Web which would then reinforce its evolution, but above all its ability to continue. The consciousness in our small group is that continuing becomes more difficult and dubious with our present civilization, in which the leadership or the elite have committed to, on the one hand, growth and, on the other, consuming the Life Web itself. This shockingly negative outcome is taken up by critics like T.J. Demos, but the larger issues are avoided as, in my judgement, over-attention and the majority of resources, at least in our country, move toward social justice funding and away from funding systems breakdown.
So, my characterization of the current situation in the environmental artistic milieu is that we are too little and too late in coming to the kind of understanding and behavior that would let all of life continue in an amiable, convivial, nurturant manner. Most disturbing is the increasing ice melt and ocean rise, reduction of oxygen in the atmosphere, disappearance of the world forest down to about 30%, topsoil distress due to industrial agriculture (quite a few million miles of this), deep oceanic stress, and accelerating extinctions. So much denial! All our work in the last decade can be seen as counter-extinction work. You have a number of the works. They begin with Greenhouse Britain. We are attaching one of the most recent, Apologia Mediterraneo. In this work done last year, I ask and answer the question: Can I stretch my empathy to include a small ocean? The answer is, maybe. Then, when you look at the other work Sensorium, if you blow the image up big enough to read it, you will see that I’m now closer to being able to stretch my empathy to deal with the whole ocean. Would an oceanographer ask such a question?
Figure 2 Artworks from Peninsula Europe: Part II and IV (2007 – 2008).
“To a very different world than we now inhabit
The greatest difficulty in this new beginning
Is not so much the research required
Or the science or the experimental design
In which concept and design can be tested in small patches
Rather it is overcoming the inertial properties
Embedded in the major cultural forces that define
Most human behavior toward our life-support systems
Democracy and capitalism
Technocracy and some religions
For this level of experimentation to succeed
All must yield agency enforceable by law
To the lives that are not ourselves”
(A quote from the text accompanying the artworks)
AK: Art possesses its own means of responding to the problems facing the planet. How can art impact the environmental crisis? Does it need a seat at the table where decisions are made? One of your most recent works, , is about that. You and Helen used the exhibition format in several ways, often in the sense of a town meeting, always with the intention of seeing your proposals move off the walls, land in planning processes, and ultimately result in interventions aimed towards social and environmental justice. So, you were mingling with policymakers through being artists. Is it possible to artistically engage with policуmakers and make them more sensitive to environmental issues through the use of art? What is the difference between problem approaches taken by the artist and most other disciplines?
NH: Yes, I’d like to talk about the dramatic difference between problem approaches taken by the artist and most other disciplines. The best way to get at this in my and Helen’s work is opening our book and engaging with the work entitled “Green Heart Vision” which began in 1994 and concluded successfully in 2002. We were brought in by the cultural council of South Holland, the Dutch art government group—to see if we could save the 1000 square kilometer center of the country from a $230B development. This center of Holland was known as the Green Heart—it’s all in the account we wrote in our book. The important thing for the non-artist, for the scientist and social scientist, for the planner and the politician is to grasp the artist’s way. This differs artist by artist, but has in common freedom of expression, freedom of research and freedom with improvisation. In fact, my career is not about research, it is about search and discovery and taking immediate responsibility for that which is discovered. The Dutch example suits well. For instance, in the first couple pages you will read our public warning. It was published far and wide. In it, we were able to condense into a two- to three-minute read on the Urgency of the Moment (it works best read aloud). The danger the country was facing, which above all was the extraction of its whole history, its early history, is the story of the formation of a primitive kind of democracy where all had to work together and agree to work to keep waters pumping from the land to maintain itself below sea level. To do this a large number of communities had to find agreement and act out this agreement collectively.
After presenting the text warning of the Urgency of the Moment, we then make a map of the country printed backwards with 300,000 of the 600,000 houses proposed penciled in. It easily becomes clear that the green heart of Holland will disappear from development, into a 600,000-house city in which the city of Rotterdam is endangered. Actually, the whole history of Dutch culture disappears. Disappearing are windmills, the ecology, farming, 13 villages, and for what? Creating a city that does not need to be built in the first place. It is proposed in the wrong-headed belief that the best lands in the country have to be sacrificed in order to handle population growth. We show that the perception is wrong and that this kind of development can easily and fruitfully be accommodated within the open spaces around all the cities that surround the Green Heart. We subscribe to the notion that if you want to criticize a big plan, come up with a better one, which we did, exhibited it, and finally our plan was accepted by Dutch parliament. Can you imagine your local planner presenting a map of a region to be planned printed backwards explaining to the planning community that the concept itself is based upon wrong-headed beliefs. Moreover, pointing out resolution is easily at hand if you change how you perceive your environment. This Green Heart of Holland work is about a sharp change in perception and accepting the limitations this brings on, as well as the opportunities. So, this is what I as an artist come to the table with. These are the improvisational skills and vision designing skills, so to speak, that I see often in sharp contrast to the belief structures around me—but always done to the advantage of the Life Web.
Put most simply, I as an artist am unafraid to offend. I as an artist feel compelled to improvise much the way my other companion species do. I improvise my existence as best I can with the material at hand. The intention is to the improve that which is around me. The materials at hand in Holland were based on their planning group’s misperception of their countryside and the stresses that it faced. So, the image sequence can be understood as follows. We send a warning in a text entitled, On the Urgency of the Moment. We print the Dutch map backwards. Everybody then can see the Green Heart is broken up into parts, Rotterdam endangered, and the history of the country lost. We are then asked if our map is backwards by the Dutch, who are quite blunt and annoyed with us for embarrassing them. What then is forward? Image 3 explains what we mean by forward. This image makes clear how to save the green heart, how to save the country’s history, how to increase the biodiversity, save the farming, and 13 villages which collectively are the deep expression of Dutch life. A later image drawn by our landscape architect student shows how you can disburse 600,000 houses easily, fruitfully, even to the benefit of immigrants, and at the same time preserve the integrity of Holland’s green heart. Ultimately, our intention was to create and secure in the culture a new nurturant narrative that would permit and indeed encourage the Green heart of Holland continuing to be itself.
Moreover, we believe that our thinking and seeing approaches being both revolutionary and revelatory. We find that our work over time tends to bring to pass unintended consequences. For instance, in Holland, rather than making a biodiversity ring, the Dutch accepted our general principles then redesigned our work in part. They discovered that biodiversity would be more advantaged if their major rivers were widened. Then flood control would be improved, and biodiversity at the edges would be do far better work than our biodiversity ring. But designing the ring encouraged the Dutch to do it more effectively with their concept, which was much more open and improvisatory than ours. I must say, it was a pleasure to see the Dutch improve our plan in this way, while at the same time making our original boundary around the Green Heart the law of the land. This meant you couldn’t develop beyond our line unless it was for small, intimate family reasons. I go into all this detail because so much of the sciences deny passion, and seek to minimize risk-taking, therefore shrinking their capacity to deal with the scale of the problems we face. Actually, the positions we took in text and image could as well been used by the Dutch to dismiss us.
I conclude with some comments on science itself. I find in most of my work a need to refer to scientific discovery as subject matter—much of which I agree with and some of which I do not agree with—I get my confidence to do this from an attitude I developed in the early 70s where the sciences were concerned. And that is, if the science I needed did not exist, I could and would do it myself. Hence, if you look at the seventh piece in Survival Series, it is about how we decoded the mating behavior of a south east Asian crab. We did so in open competition—we were told—with 60 other scientists, some of whom objected to non-scientists getting such a grant. To give you an example, John Isaacs, one of the sub-directors of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and I were friends. He literally commanded us to go for a sea grant because he explained that the 17K we used to decode the mating behavior of our crab was like 6 or 7% of the 300K they spent trying to decode the mating behavior of the lobster, and we were successful and they were not. Their standard scientific behavior was to begin by dismembering the lobster to see how it worked. I remember thinking to myself, “Well, how about asking them to put it back together so we too could see how it worked?” Instead, I asked an entirely different question which had nothing to do with how a crab worked physically, but much to do with its environment. Helen and I set out to make an environment that crabs would be happy to mate in. We had no notion that we would cut up some poor crab to see how it might go about the business of mating. Of course, I had some specialized information. I understood that crabs mated in small ponds four paces by five paces and waist-high, therefore we felt comfortable to mate them in. The other thing we artists do is we ask questions differently. I remember one of the great Bauhaus problems, I taught it many times. it was in two parts. Make a light thing look heavy. Make a heavy thing look light. My position on that, and many artists do the same, is to turn their work upside down to continually give ourselves new perspectives on what we were doing. I did not notice the other lobster folks turning their lobsters upside down or making a lobster feel comfortable enough to mate. Please note that the crab finally turns up to be a central figure in a major work of art titled, Lagoon Cycle. Thus, the scientific experiment leads to a complex narrative that turns out to be a 160-foot long mural, now in the possession of the Centre Pompidou as part of the French National collection.
AK: My perception is that you have a longstanding and extraordinary grasp of strategies of multidisciplinary collaboration, that your work together with Helen was driven by a deep understanding and respect for ecological systems and fueled by great empathy for the Earth. Works such as or posit that unless artists, scientists, industry and government begin creating working environmental projects together which actively acknowledge our future needs in light of our current environmental issues, habitable environments that can sustain future generations of life may not exist. Do you believe that artists must have a firm grasp upon a number of various disciplines in order to intelligently and effectively engage large-scale projects that can make a difference in artistic, environmental, economic, and other social systems that determine the fate of the many living creatures upon which our existence depends?
NH: Such a nice question. So easy to answer. My answer to your question is: Yes! My earlier responses may make clear why I say this. At the end of your elaborate question, it is true that we introduced the idea of sustainability. It is also true however that by the 80s we were in disagreement with sustainability. To sustain something in a particular state, given the laws of indeterminacy, is a physical impossibility. And the term “sustainability” has been hijacked by the growth of good people saying that grow itself is sustainable. I consider this a form of madness. Our real discourse has to be about continuing and what we are doing to permit ourselves to continue. And what must we discontinue in order for life to continue? Could we be talking about leaving all the fossil fuels in the ground? Could we be talking about our new energy abundance being the sun? And the careful nurturing of photosynthesis? Don’t you think the physicists should be biologically educated? Don}t you think politicians should understand the fundamental laws of the conservation of energy? Particularly since our systems of consumption are producing entropy in big systems? Many of which are—to use MIT talk—entering perturbation in preparation for collapse.
Figure 3 Works from the book, Tibet is the High Ground (2008 – 2012).
“The research of Chinese glaciologists
As well as those from India appears to be right
And more than 80 percent of the glaciers in Tibet
And surrounding areas
Will disappear in the next 35 years
As the temperatures rise
Six degrees Celsius or more
Thus, producing conditions of
Flood and drought negatively affecting
The Salween, Mekong, Hwang Ho
Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Ganges
And Indus River systems
That nourish both the ecosystems
And the well-being of those living within them
The Force Majeure
Will work to the disadvantage
Of about one-sixth of the earth’s population
All those who live in these seven drain basins
That constitute so much of continental Asia
The countries of China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia,
South Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan
Will need to put aside
Differences of culture, governance
Race, religion, and legal systems
In order to create a counterforce
At virtually continental scale”
(A quote from the text accompanying the artworks)
AK: I know that you often use poetic language in your environmental art projects. What do you think about the power of poetic gesture in your work? Can a very simple poetic gesture have an effect on policy? You once said that poetry avoids planning language, science language, all those kinds of languages, so that if somebody reads our work carefully, they can understand.
NH: The answer to your question is: Yes. The examples exist in the Sava River work, in the Pacific Northwest text, and the Holland work. You might read “The Urgency of the Moment,” which affected the planners considerably in Holland.
AK: Why is the act of artistic/poetic expression important? Do you think that poetic expression is written not only to be understood, but also read out loud, so that it’s not just the written word but also the spoken word that is very important? Why do you think so?
NH: I am influenced—and Helen was, too—by the work of the ancient bards, particularly in Ireland and Scotland. In those times, nothing was written down, everything was an oral tradition. The poets in their poetry were policymakers and were listened to by the leadership and policymakers of those countries. So, we took lessons from them as well as Heraclitus, Socrates, the Noble Eight-Fold Path of the Buddha, with a little help from Gandhi. Our work is meant to be read but often does best as a performance where Helen and I did alternate reading. If you go to our book and review Lagoon Cycle you will find much of it is written by both of us and you can understand this by looking at the difference in our handwriting—mine being a little bit awkward and Helen’s being elegant. When others read the work, we tell them, let the male voice speak the words that are written awkwardly, let the female voice read the words that are written elegantly. Where influencing policymakers is concerned, the last works in our poem Urgency of the Moment did the work for us and affected the planners considerably. You might quote this.
AK: Your book, The Time of the Force Majeure. After 45 Years Counterforce is on the Horizon, actually does offers a 21st-century manifesto. Could you please comment on the key points of this manifesto?
NH: I chose not to comment on the key points. The manifesto is meant to be read and thought about and acted upon. It is literally a call to action. Without this call and many others like it, we appear to be traveling the road to our own destruction. I actually believe our most recent works on the Mediterranean, the Sensorium, and the work on Peninsula Europe are all about what we mean by the term “counterforce.” However, the counterforces that we have put on the table are weak forces.
Stephen K. Levine (SKL): Can you say a little about “Helen the Town”?
NH: It starts with the Swedes – a Swedish art group inviting us to Stockholm to help them add something to the greening of the harbor. So, we said, well, that’s a big notion, let’s go look. We spend a week looking there and find out that in the main they are building as many apartments as they can and going a little green, but it’s green-washing. We wrote them a letter and said no, we’ve met your planners, we’ve seen it and this is not enough, you need to begin again. “Helen’s Town” is our beginning again. We wrote a brief thing on why we wouldn’t do it and then wrote “Helen’s Town” and said we want to do this. It didn’t work out there, our presentation maybe wasn’t clear enough. It’s gone through re-writings to become simpler, clearer and more humble.
I took our rejection and difficulties as useful criticism, once I got past my exasperation and recreated it. Sometimes criticism that comes at you is not what it appears to be – it’s about what they are not saying, and you need to pay attention to what is not being said. “Helen’s Town” says what they are – when the heat rises, the trees die and maybe new trees come. What you can grow for your food changes. What grasses and flowers grow in the meadows that would nourish cattle and the like. We propose that Helen’s Town begin with a series of botanists living in a small community and starting to grow the future of farming, herding, over-story in a forest, the understory in a forest, and as such you would have six or seven simultaneous experiments that collectively take a look at what your environment can grow and produce and enhance biodiversity, on the one hand, and human development, on the other, and utterly defeat capitalism.
What does that mean? Capitalism is very skilled and it will utterly defeat itself. Not because of some Marxist theory where the proletariat rise – we’ve got rid of the proletariat – there is only the very rich, the rich, the starving. The laws of conservation of energy are being turned upside down, and they don’t work when they are turned upside down.
We can keep business as usual, doing what all us Americans are trying to do. The best of us, who I find boring, are trying to make the environment a little belter, do a little less damage, so that we can continue making money. They don't want to hurt the environment as much as we are. But I believe we are done for. We need a whole new discipline – belief analysis. How much does a belief cost? The cost of the belief …
SKL: What does the new form of belief require?
NH: It’s too simple to believe for most people… All species overproduce for survival reasons. Produce a million eggs, only a hundred will develop, a natural phenomenon that causes growth. If we harvest redundancy appropriately, we will assist in the health of ecosystems. For instance, if I have 1000 hectare of forest and I harvest on a 200-year basis. I only cut 20 hectare of trees any given year, so I harvest from different places, then biodiversity happens,
I as a human being can take that redundancy for my own benefit – I’ll take only the redundancy and only take in such a way that the forest improves. Otherwise I do not pull out the tree. And that’s the rule. That’s the wealth of our future: in nurturing the web of life and harvesting the excess to our benefit for trade and making sure that the harvest improves or at least sustains the systems. Right now, our harvest eats up the system. That’s my answer to capitalism. My second answer is if we don’t do it, we’re dead.
Thanks for these questions.
AK: It was our pleasure to talk to you.
Doctor of Medical Sciences, Professor, Department of Psychology, St. Petersburg Academy of Postgraduate Pedagogical Education (St. Petersburg, Russian Federation)
Stephen K. Levine
Ph.D., D.S.Sc, REAT, Professor Emeritus, York University (Toronto, Canada), Founding Dean of the Doctoral Program in Expressive Arts at The European Graduate School (Switzerland)
Reference for citations
Kopytin, A.I., Levine, S. (2021). An interview with Newton Harrison. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)
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